Yemen became the latest Arab state to plunge into political turmoil Thursday, joining Egypt and Tunisia, as thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand a change in the U.S.-backed government.
Organizers of the protests in Yemen, one of the Middle East's most impoverished countries and a haven for al-Qaida militants, said they were inspired by the protests in Tunisia that toppled the president there earlier this month. The Tunisian revolt's contagion also has played a role in the violent Egyptian demonstrations that have shaken the government there.
In Egypt, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who formerly led the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency, returned to the country on Thursday in a move certain to increase political pressure on President Hosni Mubarak, another U.S. ally.
ElBaradei's presence could further energize protesters and opposition groups who for months have been urging him to take his National Front for Change to the streets.
The 68-year-old lawyer has been reluctant to join demonstrations in the past, but he indicated he would attend rallies scheduled for today.
• • •
"No delays, no delays, the time for departure has come!" protesters shouted, calling for the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for nearly 32 years. Saleh's government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income — oil — could run dry in a decade.
The protesters were led by opposition members and youth activists in four parts of the capital, Sana.
In the southern provinces of Dali and Shabwa, riot police used batons to disperse people, while thousands took to the streets in al-Hudaydah province, an al-Qaida stronghold along the Red Sea coast.
In the southern port city of Aden, a 28-year-old unemployed protester set himself on fire. The man, identified as Fouad Sabri, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, medical officials said.
Instability in Yemen is a major concern for Washington, which has been working with Saleh's government to defeat an entrenched al-Qaida network. Officials fear anarchy in the country would give terrorists a strategic base in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
Saleh, 64, has been unable to stem unemployment and improve education, health care and sanitation in the region's poorest nation.
Anger toward him and his government has been steadily growing, especially among young activists and tribal leaders. He has also faced an intensifying secessionist movement in the south.
He has tried to defuse simmering tensions by raising salaries for the army and by denying opponents' claims that he plans to install his son as his successor. After the Tunisian revolt, Saleh ordered income taxes slashed in half and instructed his government to control prices.
With the help of U.S. money and training by elite U.S. commandos, Yemen is setting up provincial antiterrorism units to confront al-Qaida in its heartland.
In the past five years, U.S. military assistance to Yemen has totaled about $250 million. In 2010, military and civilian aid was almost evenly split and combined for about $300 million. Military aid to Yemen would reach $250 million in 2011 alone, U.S. officials said.
• • •
The United States also is Egypt's largest foreign patron, with more than $1.5 billion in aid last year and close ties to the U.S. military and intelligence networks.
Although the United States has complained publicly about Mubarak's political chokehold and human rights abuses, collapse of his government could jeopardize U.S. goals in the Middle East.
From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, the Obama administration's immediate interests are stability and cooperation on counterterrorism operations and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Long term U.S. interests are helping to introduce greater democracy and open up the region's markets.
Egypt's ruling party said it was ready for a dialogue with the public but offered no concessions to address demands for a solution to rampant poverty and political change heard in the country's largest antigovernment protests in years.
In a YouTube interview Thursday, President Barack Obama said, "Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues. Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues." He added that he has argued to Mubarak, 82, that political and economic reform "is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt."
"You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets," Obama said.
The protesters have already achieved a major feat by sustaining their demonstrations for three days in the face of a brutal police crackdown. Seven people have been killed, hundreds hurt and nearly 1,000 detained.
Before he arrived back in Egypt, ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna he was seeking regime change and ready to lead the opposition.
"The regime has not been listening," he said. "If people, in particular young people, if they want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down. My priority right now . . . is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition."
In another boost to the protest movement, the country's largest opposition group — the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — also threw its support behind the demonstrations. The group said in a statement posted on its website that it would take part in today's protests. If the group's backers turn out, it could swell the numbers on the streets significantly.
Information from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.